When we were in our 20s, Joanne and I were best friends.
I operated a lesson program in Titusville, NJ and she often came by to help out or take part in a group lesson. We always had fun together. Times were easy back then. We used to joke and say that “Prosperity was a full tank of gas and $5 in our wallet.” Those were good days.
Joanne’s father was the biggest land owner in the valley where the Amwell Valley Fox Hounds hunted. Joanne was a farmer’s daughter. She was meek, humble, kind and had the most beautiful big brown eyes. She was a big girl and we often joked that if she didn’t fall off, it was a good day. Horses that I “okayed” for her to ride had to be saints.
It was the summer of 1977 and the hunt club was hosting their annual horse trial competition as their big fund raiser. Joanne was ready to compete in the lowest level, the Beginner Novice division.
At the time, Joanne did not have a horse of her own, and I recommended that she ride my old horse Hootenanny. Hoot was now in his late teens and had competed successfully in more advanced levels in his younger days. Since I still fox hunted him, he was familiar with the territory where the horse trials would take place. I knew for certain, he would take care of Joanne at this beginner level.
After completing a nice dressage test, we put Hootenanny in the trailer and walked the cross country course. The starting box was at the top of a hill and at the bottom of the hill was the first jump in the advanced division, a big ski jump.
“This jump gives me the creeps,” Joanne said as she stood near the lethal obstacle. The front side of the jump looked like a wide chicken coop, but on the back side there was a three foot drop. “This looks dangerous to me.”
“Yeah, I always hated those drop fences,” I answered her. “Hoot and I would jump those back in our day. My stomach felt like it would come up through my throat each time we landed.”
Joanne’s beginner course made a right turn about ten feet in front of the ski jump. We continued walking the course and she felt confident about all of the fences.
“I can do this,” she said with a little smile and a little emotion.
The day was growing hot and my old horse looked tired as he walked up the hill toward the warm up area and starting box.
“Joanne,” I said, “please do not push him too hard. Only take one or two cross rails to warm up. “
“Oh Peg, we’ll be fine,” she replied and we parted.
I never expected behavior problems from Hootenanny in these later years, so I let Joanne go to the starting box by herself and I headed to a place on the course where I could see several of her jumps. As I walked away, I began to worry about my faithful old horse. I didn’t like the way he walked with his head down and his eyes half closed. Even his steps were slow and uninspired. “Was entering this horse trial a mistake?” I wondered.
However, what I could not see was the opposite of what I anticipated.
When the pair reached the top of the hill, Hootenanny suddenly forgot about the heat and about his age. He saw the other horses jumping in the warm up area and he knew what was ahead of him. The old horse picked his head up and charged over the little cross rail, then galloped and bucked around the warm up area.
Joanne was taken by complete surprise but managed to regain control. She used all of her might to get him into the starting box when it was her turn. Three times Hoot bolted out of the starting box before the countdown was complete. On the fourth try, Hoot waited for 3,2,1,0 then bolted again and galloped down the hill heading straight for the lethal ski jump.
“That is not our jump,” Joanne said to him. With both hands on her right rein she turned his head toward a smaller jump.
Hoot made a mad right turn and flew over the smaller jump and continued galloping uphill along the edge of the woods. Without warning, he ducked his head and turned into the woods and headed toward another big jump in the advanced division. Joanne fought to turn him around, but a big tree branch got in the way.
I was almost at my destination when an announcement came over the loud speaker, “Loose horse on the cross country course.”
“Oh, no! I hope it isn’t….!” but I recognized the whinny and caught sight of my old horse galloping toward me. He looked like the ornery young horse that he was many years ago. It was good to know he was okay, but where was Joanne?
“What did you do now?” I growled at him.
My horse peered back at me with a cheeky spark of youth in his eye and shook his head. I quickly removed his tack, put him in the trailer and set out to look for Joanne.
I hadn’t gotten very far, when I could see her walking through the field and heading toward the trailer. Relief came over me. “Thank You Lord that she is on her feet,” I whispered.
As she got closer, I could see her fists clenched and fire was coming out of her nostrils. I called to her, “Joanne are you okay?”
“Yes, I am okay!” she answered in a furious tone, which was very unusual for her.
I noticed that her clothes were not dirty, showing no signs of a fall, but I asked anyway. “Did you fall off?”
“No, I did not fall off,” she was now spitting fire.
“Did my horse fall?” I asked her gently.
“No, your horse did not fall,” she mimicked me in a sarcastic tone.
“Well then, uuuuh,” I was trying to be gentle. “Why did you dismount on the cross country course?”
Joanne’s voice chocked as she was on the verge of tears. I put my hand on her shoulder and motioned with my other hand for her to sit down. She plopped into a chair, put her head in her hands and took a few deep breaths. Then she proceeded to tell me.
“He ducked into the woods on his own and headed toward a huge log jump.” As Joanne spoke, she stretched her hand above her head demonstrating the size of the monstrous obstacle. “I was fighting with him to turn around when a tree branch almost hit me. I grabbed the branch and tried pushing it out of the way. The next thing I knew, Hoot ran out from underneath of me and left me hanging from the tree.”
Joanne took another deep breath and continued as her voice grew louder. “I had to jump down out of the tree while Hoot ran off without me.”
I put my hand over my mouth to hide my expression, as Joanne continued, “The fence judges asked me if I was okay, then they started laughing.”
I wanted to laugh as well, but instead I said, “Let’s go to the refreshment stand for some ice tea.”
Joanne vowed to never ride Hootenanny again and began a search for a horse of her own. It was a long search until Joanne found “Happy Appy,” the horse of her dreams. He was a dark Appaloosa with white spots, ten years old and the perfect size for Joanne. He was very experienced and very saintly.
The asking price was far less then what the horse was worth in my opinion. Joanne needed another $500 to make the purchase. She made plans to go to the bank and ask for a loan.
That same night her younger brother approached her with a raffle ticket he was selling for his baseball team. It was his last ticket. The price of the ticket was $5. Joanne opened her wallet and handed her brother her last $5, leaving her wallet empty.
She didn’t think any more about it and got ready for bed. Later that night, the baseball coach called and informed her that she won $500 from the raffle ticket.
Joanne and Appy had many happy years together. Appy lived a long and healthy life on her father’s farm in Amwell Valley.
Joanne and I are still friends and often reminisce about the wonderful horses of our youth. Joanne no longer rides but both of her daughters are riders and she enjoys reliving her horse days with them.
I don’t have daughters, and my son no longer rides. So I will have to wait for my granddaughter’s first horse show!
That’s my story and I am sticking to it. God bless all who read my story.
About the Author
Peggy DeForte Vurgason began teaching horseback riding at the age of 15 and later went on to ride professionally. Today, she competes in Western Dressage and trail riding on her horse, Homerun Joe, and along with her husband George and his mule, Billy John. Peggy is the author of The American Riding System, the fiction series Long Ears and Short Tales, and the soon-to-be published novel Hootenanny Spirit.